The Oregonian just gave me a happy task: trying to explain the pleasures of the original "Sin City" comics to the uninitiated. My attempt follows.
The "Sin City" movie is already out -- in your local bookstore.
The film -- adapted nearly panel-for-panel from Frank Miller's series of crime comics -- is a bloody celebration of pulp thrills, directed by Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarantino and Miller himself. (Here's a gesture of respect: Rodriguez quit the Director's Guild of America so Miller could share credit.)
But the really good news is this:
Prodded by the movie's April 1 release, Dark Horse is re-issuing all seven volumes of the original "Sin City" comics -- a couple of which were out of print -- in an all-new format. (Vols. 1-5 are out now, with Vols. 6 and 7 scheduled to hit stores April 8.)
Designed, as Miller has said, so "you can put them in your purse," the new editions are gorgeous and compact -- with numbered spines and all-new cover designs by Chip Kidd. According to Bookscan, thanks to interest in the movie, the new editions are already finding an audience.
But what's the audience finding?
Only some of the most outrageously hard-boiled comic books ever-- blood-soaked fever dreams of cars, women, guns and mayhem -- written and drawn by a restless artist at his peak.
From Batman to 'Sin'
Until now, Frank Miller has enjoyed only modest success in Hollywood, and "modest" might be putting it nicely. He wrote the screenplays for the two "Robocop" sequels, and had one of his comics, "Big Guy and Rusty the Boy Robot," adapted into an animated series that got limited airtime.
But in the world of comics, Miller's a god -- the most important funnybook creator of the late 20th century, alongside "Watchmen"'s Alan Moore.
Miller started making crime comics as a teenager, but was forced to draw superheroes for his bread and butter after he started working for Marvel in the late '70s. Soon, he was smuggling his love of urban noir into his superhero work. His run on "Daredevil" is legendary: Partly inspired by Will Eisner, who worked to push genre boundaries in "The Spirit," Miller wove more character development and gangland machinations into the capes-and-tights genre than any previous comic-book writer had dared.
He followed this in 1986 with his masterpiece, "The Dark Knight Returns" -- the story of a fiftysomething Batman who comes out of retirement in a corrupt future. That book earned critical praise and spawned a thousand trend pieces crowing that "comics aren't for kids any more" (a mixed blessing, as it turned out).
In 1991, Miller -- flush off this string of hits -- returned to his first love, crime fiction. The first "Sin City" story, serialized in the "Dark Horse Presents" anthology, was brutally simple, a pure distillation of pulp: A thug named Marv kills his way up a ladder of corruption as he tries to find out who murdered a hooker named Goldie.
But the style? That was a jaw-dropper.
Historically, comic books and pulp fiction are crazy traveling companions: Sci-fi pulp deity Alfred Bester cut his teeth writing "Green Lantern," for example. But "Sin City" mashed crime and comics together in ways no one had quite seen before. Miller was tapping into some long-repressed id, and he wasn't censoring a single word or image that spilled from his brain to the page. "Sin City" was pure bloodlust, albeit smartly rendered bloodlust -- mixing the larger-than-life iconography of his superhero work with film-noir dialogue and a brutality straight out of a men's-adventure magazine from the '50s.
Marv ran afoul of cannibal priests and a well-armed band of gorgeous prostitutes, all while narrating his story with a ferocity that verged on parody:
"When I find out who did it, it won't be quick or quiet like it was with you," he promises the dead Goldie. "No, it'll be loud and nasty, my kind of kill. I'll stare the bastard in the face and laugh as he screams to God and I'll laugh harder when he whimpers like a baby. And when his eyes go dead, the hell I send him to will seem like Heaven after what I've done to him. I love you, Goldie."
Incredibly, Miller's black-and-white artwork complimented this sort of ranting: He dug a cool new look and vibe out of raw material that could have stunk worse than a hard-boiled egg.
One of the great pleasures of reading this first story -- now collected as "The Hard Goodbye" -- is watching Miller literally invent a new way to draw comics as he goes along. Marv's world is rendered in pure light and shadow; Miller has obviously penciled each picture in detail, then inked only what he felt was absolutely necessary to convey shapes and motion. The result is a moving chiaroscuro, a comic that looks stamped in wood, with panel and lettering layouts that are far more sophisticated than they look at first glance.
An evolving style
The six collected volumes that follow "The Hard Goodbye" -- "A Dame to Kill For," "The Big Fat Kill," "That Yellow Bastard," "Family Values," the short-story collection "Booze, Broads and Bullets" and "Hell and Back: A Sin City Love Story" -- are every bit as overcooked as their titles suggest. Consider two of the books being woven into the film: In "Big Fat Kill," our hero, Dwight, slogs through sewers and tar pits chasing after a cop's severed head. In "Yellow Bastard," a 68-year-old ex-cop protects a stripper from a bulbous freak whose jaundiced skin is the only color element in an otherwise black-and-white book.
But these aren't satirical stories; they create an exaggerated reality that allows you to feel for the quip-barking characters. And even as the trysts and beheadings pile up on the page, there's a growing complexity to the storytelling.
It's worth reading the books in order, if only to see how Miller skips around in time, overlapping his stories with the assurance of a "Pulp Fiction"-era Tarantino. (Reading them now, it's not hard to see why Tarantino lobbied to guest-direct a scene or two of the movie.)
By the final book in the series, which saw print in 2000, Miller had introduced a femme fatale who looked like a young Bette Davis; a squad of sword- and gun-wielding assassin prostitutes who act as a sort of antihero Justice League; a detailed hierarchy of mob bosses, mercenaries, flunkies and corrupt political families; and at least four leading men -- all stereotypically pushed to the edge of reason -- who all narrate their stories in the same hard-boiled patter.
Meanwhile, Miller had restlessly evolved his art, fiddling with the visual language he pioneered. He introduced splashes of color, loosened his lines, and increased the complexity of his layouts between stunning "splash pages" of black-and-white art. Vol. 7, "Hell and Back," is easily the weakest story of the bunch -- a fairly pat damsel-in-distress story, with a lonesome hero and a dopey conspiracy -- but it's also the most visually unhinged: The characters are drawn with oversized eyes, hands and feet (a sort of pulp "Precious Moments"), and there's a wild full-color section that tells 26 pages of story through the hero's drug-induced hallucination.
Miller says he has a few more "Sin City" stories up his sleeve. And while there's a guarantee of certain pulp thrills in whatever narrative he dishes out, if these seven gorgeous books are any indication, how he'll dish them out should come as a complete surprise.
Bloody Pulp (The Oregonian's ArtsWeek, March 27, 2005)